Atlantic Sun Conference Notebook
by Darren Lowry
Conference turns upside down
The Atlantic Sun Conference has been turned on its head in the early going, with the cellar-dwelling teams of last year leading the conference and the conference heavyweights from last year stuck at the bottom of the standings.
In an odd quirk, home court has actually been a disadvantage for in-conference play, as no team has better than a .500 record at home against A-Sun opponents this year. In fact, the top four teams in the division haven’t hosted any A-Sun games this season, with all six of their combined wins coming on the road.
Mercer and Gardner-Webb sit atop the division right now, sharing a 2-0 in-conference record, while Lipscomb and Belmont are each 1-0 in A-Sun play.
Meanwhile, former conference powerhouses Florida Atlantic, Georgia State, and Troy State (which is phasing out the “State” following this season) all sit at the bottom of the division, with the defending regular season champion Troy in last place.
Despite suffering an upset loss to Gardner-Webb earlier this season to knock them out of first place, UCF still is one of the strongest teams in the early going, as they sport a 7-2 overall record.
Mercer has also been very consistent this year. It will be tough to knock the Bears out of first place.
Notable performers include Mercer guard Damitrius Coleman, who leads the NCAA in assists per game with 8.9, and Lipscomb forwards Shaun Durant and Cameron Robinson, who are both shooting at or over 70 percent from the floor for the year. Freshman Belmont forward Justin Hare has also been named A-Sun player of the week twice this season, earning it on Dec. 13 and on Dec. 27.
The Bears (2-0 A-Sun, 5-2 overall) unexpectedly sit atop the A-Sun, as their road wins against Stetson and Jacksonville have been good enough to place them atop the rest of the conference. The team has gotten valuable contributions from a number of players this year on their way to the top.
Guard Damitrius Coleman leads the NCAA in assists at 8.9 per game, while forward Will Emerson and guard Jacob Skogen are tied for second place in the A-Sun with 17.6 points per game. Coleman also leads the league in steals per game, with Skogen right behind him in third place. In addition, Mercer has two of the top rebounders in forwards Wesley Duke and Emerson, who rank fourth and seventh in the conference, respectively. Emerson was named the A-Sun player of the week on Dec. 6.
Mercer disposed of local rival Georgia Southern 103-94 on Nov. 29, then leaped into first place in the A-Sun with road wins over Stetson 89-76 on Dec. 2 and Jacksonville 71-67 on Dec. 4. Three days later, the Bears returned home to defeat Fort Valley State 89-68 before traveling to Ohio to take on the Buckeyes, falling 102-77.
Mercer doesn’t need to change anything to stay successful. They simply need to keep doing what they’ve been doing: spread the ball around on offense and play solid team basketball. They are going to be a very tough team the rest of the year if they continue playing the way they are now.
The Bears will travel to Savannah State on Dec. 30 before returning
home to begin A-Sun play, starting with FAU on Jan. 3 and UCF on
The Bulldogs (2-0 A-Sun, 5-4 overall) started A-Sun play with a huge road upset win over the defending A-Sun champion UCF Knights, and followed that with another win against division foe Florida Atlantic, which was good enough to catapult them into second place in the conference. However, they were unable to pull off what would have been more stunning upsets against Georgia, UNLV, or Colorado.
They scored their first A-Sun victory over UCF 67-55 on Dec. 2, before picking up their second A-Sun win with a win over Florida Atlantic on the road 76-69 on Dec. 4. However, the Bulldogs could not pull off the road upset trifecta, and fell to Georgia 67-62 on Dec. 8. Gardner-Webb returned home briefly on Dec. 11 to dispose of Kenyon 92-61, before losing on the road to UNLV 80-65 on Dec. 21. The team also fell to Colorado on the road, losing 97-88.
Forward Brian Bender has continued to be one of the best players in the league. He’s second in the conference in scoring with over 17 points, and is also averaging 7 rebounds a game, which puts him among the league leaders in that category.
However, a huge part of Gardner-Webb’s success has been the team’s depth at guard this season. For example, Tim Jennings leads the conference in steals per game, with 3, and is also averaging nearly 13 points a game. T.J. McCullough ranks fourth in the league in assists, averaging nearly 4 a game. Chris Gash has also been a key contributor for the Bulldogs this season.
Gardner-Webb will begin their defense of their second-place spot at home, starting with Lipscomb on Jan. 3, Belmont on Jan. 5, and Campbell on Jan. 7.
The Bison (1-0 A-Sun, 6-2 overall) have continued their very strong play this year, and sit a surprising third in the division. While their most recent loss at Arkansas may have provided some harsh reality for the young squad, they have been nothing less than impressive so far in the season.
There was really no question that Lipscomb had improved in the off-season. It was expected that the Bison’s guards, the lone bright spot of the team last season, would improve this season.
Indeed young guards Brian Fisk and James Poindexter have been twin terrors for opposing teams so far, as they have combined to average more than 28 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and three steals per game.
The bigger question was whether Lipscomb’s forwards would be good enough to advance the Bison into the playoffs. Eight games into the season, it seems the answer is a resounding yes.
Not only has Lipscomb gotten strong contributions from their post players this year, one of them even leads the league in rebounding. Forward Cameron Robinson, whose 9.6 rebounds per game is best in the A-Sun, is also averaging 11.1 points a game with a 69.8 shooting percentage. As high as that is, it’s not good enough for the best in the league. That honor goes to teammate Shaun Durant, who is shooting 72.5 percent on the year.
The key in their success may be moderation. Neither player averages more than 7 shots a game.
An upset 77-68 road win over the defending A-Sun champion Troy Trojans on Dec. 4 vaulted the Bison into third place in the A-Sun. The team helped to solidify their place with a 71-56 win at Savannah State on Dec. 6 to complete a home-and-away series sweep. Lipscomb also defeated Nicholls State 83-74 on Dec. 11 and Rust College 103-82 on Dec. 18 to stretch their winning streak to six games. The streak was finally snapped with a road 83-54 loss against Arkansas on Dec. 20.
The team will look to continue their winning ways into 2005 when they travel to face A-Sun foes Gardner-Webb on Jan. 3 and Campbell on Jan. 5.
The Bruins (1-0 A-Sun, 2-6 overall) are living and dying by the three point shot this year, having attempted 226 shots from beyond the arc in just eight games this season. They lead the nation in shots made per game, averaging around 10.8 per contest. In one game against Troy alone, Belmont attempted an astounding 43 three point shots.
Guard Nick Otis leads the team in scoring, averaging 10.4 points per game despite not starting any of the team’s first eight games. Guard Brian Collins leads the team in many offensive categories, including rebounds, assists, and steals. Guard Jese Snyder is averaging 13.5 points over his last four games. Center Andrew Preston leads the league in blocks, averaging 2.4 per contest.
Freshman guard Justin Hare earned A-Sun player of the Week honors for the second time this season, on the strength of a strong performance against Tennessee on Dec. 20. Hare scored 20 points in just 21 minutes of play. He also leads A-Sun freshmen in most offensive categories this year, and is looking like a strong early favorite for Freshman of the Year.
Belmont suffered a dismal 66-47 road loss to local rival Middle Tennessee State on Nov. 29, making just 2 of 17 three pointers in the contest. Belmont bounced back in their next game, however, burying Troy with 19 three pointers on the road 86-73 on Dec. 2. Belmont used a 52-point second half to defeat Navy 91-66 at home on Dec. 6. The Bruins then started a tough stretch of non-conference games, and were unable to score an win in any of them. The team fell to UAB on the road 107-76 on Dec. 15, returned home but lost to Chattanooga 75-67 on Dec. 18, and lost at Tennessee 77-68 on Dec. 20.
Needless to say, Belmont’s success can be tied closely to their proficiency from long range this season. When the team is hot from three point land on a particular night, they can beat almost anyone (see last year’s mega-upset at Missouri as proof). But when the team is collectively cold, they struggle mightily.
The Bruins will have one more non-conference game remaining before A-Sun play resumes, but it’s a doozy. They will travel to Alabama to face Auburn on Dec. 30, before continuing on the road at Campbell on Jan. 3 and Gardner-Webb on Jan. 5.
Despite an early upset home loss against A-Sun foe Gardner-Webb, the defending A-Sun champion Knights (1-1 A-Sun, 7-2 overall) still look like a strong favorite early on to finish atop the A-Sun this season.
The Knights started their A-Sun schedule with a disappointing 67-55 loss at home against Gardner-Webb on Dec. 2. The team then rebounded to defeat Missouri-Kansas City at home 62-56 on Dec. 4. Not wanting to be upset at home by another A-Sun opponent, the Knights took care of Campbell 90-73 on Dec. 16.
The team then completed their home and away sweep at Missouri-Kansas City on Dec. 18 in dramatic fashion, winning 57-56 on a last second follow-up shot by guard Gary Johnson. UCF were then themselves the victims of a last-second loss, falling to Brown 83-82 in overtime on Dec. 28 on a pair of last-second free throws.
Johnson has been the team’s best player so far this season, averaging 13.8 points a game, good enough for ninth-best in the conference. Teammate Joshua Peppers is tenth at 13.6 points a game. Johnson also ranks third in assists per game and sixth in steals per game.
Forward Anthony Williams is also among the league leaders in field goal percentage, averaging 65.6 percent from the floor to go along with his 11 points a game.
The Knights have one more non-conference opponent remaining against Fordham on Dec. 29, before they kick off a long stretch of A-Sun contests with a trip up to Georgia to face Georgia State on Jan. 3 and Mercer on Jan. 5.
The Dolphins (1-1 A-Sun, 4-4 overall) have had a very up and down start to the season. They began the season by winning three of their first four games, but have followed that with dropping three of the last four games.
The team’s losses to non-conference opponents recently have been ugly blowouts. However, on the positive side, Jacksonville’s games with A-Sun opponents this year have been close. In fact, both of them were decided by a combined seven points.
The Dolphins took Georgia State all the way to overtime before finishing on top 78-75 at home on Dec. 2. Two nights later, host Jacksonville fell to Mercer 71-67. The Dolphins then blew out Savannah State 84-62 at home on Dec. 11. The team then suffered consecutive blowouts on the road, losing first to Tennessee Tech 92-74 on Dec. 19, then to Florida State 101-57 on Dec. 21.
One trend that seems to be emerging in the team’s losses is that in the middle of a close game, they suddenly allow opponents to go on momentum-killing runs that effectively kill any chance of a Jacksonville win.
For example, the Dolphins were leading Mercer 45-38 when they allowed the Bears to go on a 13-2 run. Despite a last-minute rally, Jacksonville never regained the lead. Likewise, the team was down 19-16 to Tennessee Tech when the opposing team went on an 11-0 run, and stretched their lead to 22 points by halftime.
Not to be outdone, the Seminoles had a 29-27 lead over the Dolphins before an 18-2 run to close the first half gave them a 17 point lead at halftime, before opening up the second half with 12 more unanswered points. Florida State led by as much as 47 in that contest.
Forward Antonio Cool leads the team in scoring with 14.4 points a game, good enough for seventh-best in the league and guard Jesse Kimbrough is sixth in the league in assists at 3.4 per game.
There is no question that forward Haminn Quaintance is talented. However, he hasn’t been steadily progressing this season the way Jacksonville fans had hoped. Overall, his stats have slipped a bit this year, as both his scoring and rebound averages are down from last season. The Dolphins need Quaintance to (at least) bounce back to his production averages of last year, if not improve on them, if Jacksonville wants to stabilize.
The team will look to right their ship at home when they host a three game series starting with Eckerd Dec. 29 before starting their A-Sun schedule again against Stetson on Jan. 3 and Troy on Jan. 5.
Although the Hatters (1-1 A-Sun, 2-6 overall) record shows that they have lost four in a row, they have done so while facing Florida, Miami (FL), Florida State, and Colorado State, all on the road. Thus, it has not been as rough as start to the season as the record might suggest.
Of course, due to the difficult competition, the Hatters’ stats have struggled a bit this season. However, the team still has four players who are averaging ten or more points per game, led by guard Anthony Register with 13.4 points a game, and Boris Djordjic, with 12.9 points per contest.
As a team, however, the Hatters have been doing very well from the free throw line this season, collectively ranking third in the NCAA by averaging a hair under 80 percent per game from the charity stripe.
Stetson opened their A-Sun schedule with a home 89-76 loss against Mercer on Dec. 2 before they came back and beat Georgia State 79-70 at home on Dec. 4. Then, they began their road whipping schedule, first getting blown out against Florida 93-57 on Dec. 8, then to Miami (FL) 81-50 on Dec. 18, playing Florida State well before eventually falling 71-61 on Dec. 23, and then traveling west to be trounced by Colorado State 93-57 on Dec. 28.
It will be interesting to see how the Hatters respond to the rough schedule when their A-Sun schedule starts back up. Certainly, the players can’t be enjoying their current losing streak, but the tough competition may give Stetson an edge over other division teams in the coming months.
The Hatters have one more difficult road match-up remaining before mercifully beginning A-Sun play again. The team will travel to Georgia to face the Bulldogs on Dec. 31, before going to Florida to play Jacksonville on Jan. 3. Stetson will finally return home on Jan. 5 when they take on Troy.
At first glance, it may seem like the Owls (1-1 A-Sun, 1-7 overall) deserve to be in last place. After all, a 1-7 record wouldn’t convince anyone that they’re a good team. However, the season may not go as badly as the record would indicate.
Much like A-Sun foes Stetson and Campbell, the Owls have scheduled non-conference games that weren’t designed to puff up the team’s overall record. Instead, they were designed to toughen the team and build character for the long playoff run. Thus, FAU may or may not fare better against teams more on their own “level” after these games.
The Owls were defeated on the road by Miami (FL) 84-68 on Nov. 29, then opened their A-Sun schedule with a home loss against Gardner-Webb 76-69 on Dec. 4, before bouncing back to blow out Campbell 82-59 on Dec. 14. The Owls then lost both rounds of the Dodge Holiday Classic, struggling against at Nevada, falling 60-46 on Dec. 17, before losing a close home match-up with Idaho State 71-67 the next night. The team then lost on the road to UNLV 83-66 on Dec. 22.
Pre-season All-Conference forward Mike Bell has rebounded from a slow start to lead his team in scoring, rebounds, and blocks. He currently ranks fourth in the league with his 16.4 points per game, and is third in the league in rebounds and blocks, with 7.8 and 2, respectively.
Teammate and guard Kahleaf Watson is also among the league leaders in a few categories, placing fourth in the league in assists at 4.2 per game and fifth in steals with 2.1 per game.
The Owls will look to snap their three-game losing streak when they take on Colgate at home on Dec. 30. They will then begin A-Sun play in January, traveling first to Mercer on Jan. 3, then to Georgia State on Jan. 5.
Since opening their season with an upset win over Southern Miss, the Panthers (0-2 A-Sun, 3-6 overall) have been a bit of a disappointment, losing six of their last eight games. The Panthers have a nasty habit of allowing huge point swings in their games, giving opposing teams a chance to put a game out of reach early on.
Georgia State defeated LA Lafayette 85-78 at home on Nov. 29, then began their A-Sun schedule with a nail-biting, 78-75 overtime loss at Jacksonville on Dec. 2 followed by a 79-70 loss at Stetson on Dec. 4. After dispatching Delta State 88-68 at home on Dec. 7, the team has fallen on hard times on the road, losing at Charlotte 80-65 on Dec. 11, and completed their home-and-away series by losing at LA Lafayette 67-50 on Dec. 20.
Forward Marcus Brown is fifth in the league in scoring with 16.3 points per game. He has done particularly well from long range this season, hitting nearly 60 percent of his three point tries, and is also the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 5.2 boards per contest.
Center Sylvester Morgan is second in the league in blocks this season, swatting away 2.2 shots per game.
Despite the disappointing start, Georgia State has the talent to be a strong competitor this season. If they find their rhythm, they could easily rattle off four or five wins in a row, and put themselves right back into the A-Sun hunt.
The Panthers will travel to face Bobby Knight and the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Dec. 29 before returning home to kick off their A-Sun schedule. They will first welcome UCF into town on Jan. 3 before hosting FAU on Jan. 5.
The Camels (0-2 A-Sun, 2-6 overall) have had a tough time securing wins this season. However, the blame for that can be attributed more to the schedule than the players. Campbell has by far the most difficult non-conference schedule in the A-Sun, which is saying something this year. They have already faced one high-ranking team this year in N.C. State, and are about to play against another in Kentucky, which wraps up a conference-high seven game road trip.
Much like Stetson and FAU, Campbell’s team stats are perhaps a bit skewed due to the level of competition they’ve faced recently. The only exception to that has been forward Comerlee Poole, who is second in the league in rebounds with 7.9 per game.
The team’s leading scorer is currently forward Maurice Latham, who is averaging 10.4 points per game. He also leads the team in steals. Anthony Atkinson is second in scoring with 10.2 points a game, and leads the team in assists.
Campbell scored an upset win over N.C. A&T 68-67 on Dec. 11, after a last second lay-up put the Camels up by one for good, snapping a 35 road losing streak for Campbell. The team then headed south to Florida, losing to FAU 82-59 on Dec. 14 and to UCF 90-73 on Dec. 16. The Camels were then destroyed by Tennessee 90-49 on Dec. 23.
Again, while Campbell’s schedule roughly mirrors that of Stetson’s or FAU’s in the sense that it includes a number of extremely difficult road games against major programs, Campbell is one of the youngest teams in the league, and thus might have trouble absorbing their beatings.
The Camels will end their road trip in Kentucky, taking on the powerhouse Wildcats on Dec. 29. Campbell will finally return home to kick off A-Sun play, hosting Belmont on Jan. 3 and Lipscomb on Jan. 5. The team will then leave on the road again to play Gardner-Webb on Jan. 7.
The defending regular season champion Trojans (0-2 A-Sun, 2-8 overall) have gotten off to an abysmal start to their season, as they dropped five games in a row at one point, before rebounding with a recent win at Pepperdine.
Troy began their defense of their title by dropping consecutive home games to A-Sun opponents, losing first to Belmont 86-73 on Dec. 2, then to Lipscomb 86-77 on Dec. 4. The team then went on a tough road swing against three major programs, but failed to be competitive in any of them, getting blown out at SMS 110-63 on Dec. 11, losing at Mississippi 81-49 on Dec. 15, and losing at Alabama State 61-48 on Dec. 21. Troy did score an uplifting upset road victory over Pepperdine 72-69 in the first round of the Lobo Invitational on Dec. 28.
Troy has blown several leads in those games, and has allowed opposing teams to go on a number of unanswered offensive runs that have proven costly.
Forward Eddie Baker has been the best player for the team, averaging 12.8 points a game. Baker is also fifth in the league in blocks per game, with 1.6. Guard Bobby Dixon has also done well for the Trojans this year, averaging 12.6 points and three assists per game.
The Trojans will finish up the Lobo Invitational at New Mexico on Dec. 29, then will begin the bulk of their A-Sun play at Jacksonville on Jan. 5 and at Stetson on Jan. 7.